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You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the LORD. -- Leviticus 19: 28 (ESV)
Let me start in the spirit of full disclosure that I do not have a tattoo. I never had the desire to get one, even when I was unsaved. My intent here is to broach a subject that recently arose in an online group I associate with regarding this topic. Some of the responses were stark in their judgment based upon opinion, not Scripture. We should agree up front that we are dealing with post-salvation tattooing. My sincere hope is there is no one who actually believes that what we did prior to being saved is somehow being held against us today. If so we need to go back to the cross and work on the basics. Within these discussions there was much rancor and misunderstanding. There were accusations of demonic possession, which is impossible for a believer, as well as the confusion between what is sin and what is perhaps not beneficial. Let us start there:
"All things are lawful," but not all things are helpful. "All things are lawful," but not all things build up. -- 1Corinthians 10: 23 (ESV)
In general, tattooing is not a sin issue beloved. It could be considered sin if the purposes are sinful. If the motivation behind it is to glorify self for example. If we are engaging in the practice as an idol, something we place before God. We need to recognize also that this is true for any activity we engage in and that our hearts are the most deceitful things known to man. I heard the accusation this week of paganism and yes the roots of tattoos are all pagan in nature. As are everything else that did not directly come out of Israel. The notion that something has pagan roots is irrelevant to the discussion, except to understand the historical context. I think the statement here from Paul is very applicable to this issue. Sure it is allowed but is it beneficial? I think that is a good guide for us before we might consider getting a tattoo.
From a scriptural standpoint there is only one verse in the entire canon of Scripture that mentions tattooing directly and it is the key verse today. Before the anti-tats crowd declares victory there are some considerations. First of all, the practice referred to in Leviticus here is not tattooing we see today. Tattoos were often used to display ownership. Slaves would often have a tattoo of the initials of their master. Moses also lumps it in with the practice of carving the names of the dead into your hands, which was commonplace at the time as a superstitious offering to a God other than Yahweh. The issue being spoken against is idolatry. So once again we return to the motivation behind the desire. The other important point is that this was considered part of the ceremonial law, which Christ nailed to the cross. So once again we return to the question of whether it is beneficial, even though it may be permissible. But that is it. There are no other scriptural considerations. Wait a minute preacher! What about the body being the temple of the Holy Spirit?
Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. -- 1Corinthians 6: 19-20 (ESV)
The first issue is the context is clearly speaking about sexual immorality, which is a far greater issue within the church than tattooing. Now you can certainly make the case for a general statement of honoring God with your body but until you put the Twinkie down, perhaps you should hold off on dealing with that speck of tattooing in the eye of your brother. Those verses from Matthew 7 are some of the most misused because they are not speaking against judging. We are to judge our brothers and sisters. We are our brother's keeper. Those verses however were dealing with hypocrisy, which Jesus has made clear He hates. So truth be told, I imagine all of us fall short of the standard of 1Corinthians 6:19-20. We need to be very careful in wielding bible verses as weapons against what we have deemed unacceptable. So where do we go in summary?
1) Anything occurring before salvation is not at issue within this discussion.
2) The act of getting a tattoo is not sin. It does not separate us from God.
3) Tattoos can be representing a sin, such as idolatry or self-glorification.
Now I understand that for many, tattooing was driven by demonic forces before and after salvation. While a Christian cannot be possessed they can certainly be oppressed. Especially when young in the faith and still on spiritual milk. Compounding this problem is few churches today are actually discipling anymore so most Christians may not move on to spiritual meat. The problem is when you assume your struggle must be everyone else's as well. What may be demonic oppression to you may have no significance as such in the life of another believer. This is what happens when we cobble together theology based upon cult of personality preachers, "Christian" television, or even worse websites that do not provide accurate exegesis of the Bible. Like many today in the world, Christians often seem more intent on confirming their pre-held bias than seeking out the truth of what God actually said. Suddenly everyone who disagrees is lumped in with anathema and labeled a heretic. The result is the rearing of an old ugly term in Christianity known as legalism. When you start mixing in works with grace, as a prerequisite for salvation, you have ventured into legalism. Again the issue is not whether you can do it but should you do it. Is it beneficial?
The only way to answer that is to assess the motivation and the actual tattoo one would imagine. If someone chooses to get a tattoo that says John 3:16 or Jesus Saves and their sole intent is to use it to start evangelistic conversations it would seem a stretch to think God would necessarily disapprove. My opinion is that we would be better off living out our lives as if Jesus saves and representing John 3:16 than placing and advertisement on our body. People will always believe better what they see us live out. That is also one of the issues with even pious tattooing. Once you do that you better live up to it. If your tattoos speak louder than your life of what witness is that for Jesus? On the flip side, tattoos that have nothing to do with Jesus or the Gospel do not seem to serve a Christian purpose so then we must ask ourselves why we feel compelled to get it. Remember, our hearts will lie to us just as much as when it swears we will stop eating Twinkies starting January first.
So it would seem to me to be consistent with Scripture, if you are getting a tattoo that somehow represents Christ and that is your sole motivation then you better make sure you are prepared to live your life accordingly. If you are getting any other tattoo you need to ask yourself why? If you follow through with it that does not mean you are pagan. It does not mean you are unsaved. It does not mean that you are fighting demons. It means you got a tattoo. If you end up feeling convicted for it by all means repent. If not, move on. The notion that you will stand before Jesus one day and He will say away from me you who got a tattoo, does not encapsulate an understanding of the Gospel at all.
In closing a just a word about our family. Jesus said that our true family is those that do the will of the Father. That people will know us by our love for each other. Facebook and public forums are not the place to be engaging in Spiritual death cage matches with brothers and sisters over side doctrine. If we insisted on separation from everyone who disagreed with any area of what we might hold true then we will find ourselves alone. The Bible warns us against engaging in foolish arguments and as a recovering addict to foolish arguments, I understand why. I know it is hard but if there is something you want clarification on doctrinally you should confide with people you trust on doctrine. When you ask a question or form a hard stance opinion in a group of 500 you are asking for 500 opinions and I guarantee you they will not all agree. By the way, once you get the answer from the trusted source you need to do your own work as a Berean and search the Scriptures. The Bible says that God will provide wisdom to whoever asks for it and that the Holy Spirit will guide us into all truth. I hope this was somewhat helpful.
And no, I am still not getting a tattoo.